On Raajneeti

Posted in Bollywood, books, classics, desi fiction, Drama, movies by jrahman on May 2, 2012

No, not politics.  I am sure you can get enough of that elsewhere.  This post is about Raajneeti, a big budget Bollywood film.  Check out the trailer.



So was I.  And yet, the movie was disappointing. 

It was always going to be hard to pull off a Mahabharata  adaptation.  Shashi Tharoor tried it with The Great Indian Novel a quarter century ago.  At least that had the literary flair of the post-Midnight’s Children 1980s.  And it was a novel.  Movies are harder to do.   

Still, there were some cool ideas.  It’s just that they were not followed through.  Take Karna, for example.  Easily one of the most complex figures in not just Mahabharata but any epic in any civilisation, one can do a lot with his story.  In Tharoor’s telling, Mohammed Ali Karna is denied his rightful place by the arrogant Dhritarashtra and Pandu, and goes off to create the Muslim homeland of Karnistan — the hacked-off (that is, circumcised) land.  (See what I mean about the Rushdieesque irreverence).

Here, the equivalent character is the illegitimate son — from a premarital affair with a leftist revolutionary — of the matriarch of the first family.  Played by Ajay Devgan, the character grows up as the son of the Dalit driver of the first family — recall, Karna was raised by a lowly charioteer.  Devgan is perhaps the singlemost underrated and wasted Bollywood actor of his generation.  And the pattern holds here too. 

But at least Devgan’s character could have been developed.  The same cannot be said of the Pandavas — well, two of them, not five.  In fact, if you looked at the two brothers who are meant to be the Pandavas, you wouldn’t think of Mahabharata as the inspiration.

The arrogant, headstrong older brother is running the party’s youth arm — yes, think of Jubo Dal / League.  The soft spoken, dreamy eyed younger brother is studying overseas.  The older brother gets killed after the father is hit by the enemy.  The younger brother reluctantly takes charge, and changes the game with his ruthlessness.  If you see Arjuna instead of Michael Corleone then I applaud your mental purity — clearly it has survived westoxification.

As soon as the Ranbir Kapoor character appeared, I groaned — not another Godfather rip off!  I think the adaptation would have worked far better if instead of the umpteenth Puz0-Coppola derivation, the focus was on Devgan’s Karna. 

Not just Karna, three other characters could have been better utilised.  First, there are the female characters — Draupadi (Katrina Kaif) and Kunti (Nikhila Trikha).  As in most Bollywood flicks, Kaif’s leading lady is a good eye-candy.  And yet, so much more could be done with her.  I mean, if nothing else, if the trailer didn’t remind you of a certain famous widow, clearly you have escaped Indian hegemony in all form.  As for Trikha, I have actually never seen her before.  The role seemed appropriate for Tabu (or what Shabana Azmi could have played a few decades ago).  And what could have been done with the role?  A mother torn between her sons — drama, tragedy, emotion….  

And then there is Dhritarashtra (Darshan Jariwala).  In Tharoor’s telling, he is the first prime minister of India, blind to the crumbling edifice around him.  That’s the stuff of Nehruvian tragedy.  Here, Dhritarashtra is an afterthought. 

Moving from characterisation, I have another problem with the movie — its pace and timeframe.  The whole thing takes place in a few weeks/months of election campaign.  Why the rush?  The Godfather plays out over years.  I just didn’t see the need to compress Rajneeti — its time frame should have been years, not weeks.  The blood feud it shows would easily last years, decades even — just observe Bangladeshi politics.

Just like our politics, Rajneeti could have been so much better. 

Finally, observers of Bangladeshi politics would get a kick out of this.  The American trained scion who’s meant to be Michael Corleone Arjuna has the climactic meeting with Karna and Duryodhana (Manoj Bajpai) at a factory where the electronic voting machines are rumoured to be hacked. 

One certainly hopes that our American trained scion isn’t a Corleone, and that we never have to confront an EVM hacking scandal.


5 Responses

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  1. Wellwisher said, on May 4, 2012 at 12:15 am

    Dear Jyoti,

    If you would bear with me as I recount the tale…

    Tharoor’s Karnistan is hacked off, but only in the sense of what happened to the real (of fable) Karna who had to hack off his ear lobes (to remove his kundala or magic jhumkas) and flay his torso to remove his shield of armour, both of which were an outgrowth of his skin, and not simply worn atop it. Karna was tricked into giving these away by Arjuna’s father Indira who asked him of hthis favour in the guise of a brahman. aaah! those wily guys again!
    So the analogy would be as follows. Jinnah, as Karna did, hacked away his naturally endowed treasures – cosmopolitanism, vision, and humanism – for what he himself a called a motheaten piece of land.

  2. Wellwisher said, on May 4, 2012 at 10:25 am

    There’s more here. This is from the Tamil movie Karnan (1964) starring Sivaji Ganesan – the great actor. Watch from around the 30 minute mark for about 8 minutes. Despite Karna’s father – Surya – warning him, Karna gives away his jewelry and armour, and that after recognising Indira in the guise of an old Brahman. You can follow the action although it’s in Tamizh

  3. jrahman said, on May 5, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    Wellwisher, thanks for the clip. If I recall correctly, Mohammad Rafi (Tharoor’s Maolana Azad) pointed out that Indian Muslims were also being tricked into accepting Karnistan by hacking off their natural Indianness.

  4. Wellwisher said, on May 7, 2012 at 8:39 pm

    That is true. The Maulana called Muslims India’s second majority

  5. […] Great Epic —that was done a quarter century ago.  And it has been ripped off shamelessly, and unsuccessfully, by Bollywood already.  Instead of yet another attempt at that, let’s flesh out an old […]

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